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New Left Review 13, January-February 2002


From Dürer to Barbie Doll, icons and images have been illicitly copied, quoted, parodied and purloined. As corporations wage war on such misappropriations in the name of copyright today, how far do the arts of détournement and culture jamming offer radical applications of a classical tradition?

SVEN LÜTTICKEN

ART AND THEFT

The sheer number of recent lawsuits and controversies concerning various forms of copyright infringement—ranging from film scripts and art to pop music—indicates that ‘intellectual property’ and the profits to be gained from it are hotly contested. Stars like Michael Jackson regularly have to defend themselves against accusations of having infringed the copyright of artists they have probably never heard of; though the cases are often far-fetched, there are enormous sums at stake. It is becoming increasingly difficult for many serious artists to work without being completely submerged by legal proceedings. Some sort of appropriation of pre-existing material is, of course, integral to many forms of contemporary cultural practice, but these are increasingly under pressure from armies of lawyers. In the field of music, controversies over samples can be especially stifling for bands or artists without the backing of large corporations with specialized legal departments. The cultural implications of this development are far-reaching. The band Negativland, who are actively involved in the current discussions on sampling and copyright, have noted that ‘cultural evolution is no longer allowed to unfold in the way that pre-copyright culture always did. True folk music, for instance, is no longer possible’, since folk music thrived on the free re-use of melodies and words. [1] Negativland, ‘Fair Use’, http://www.negativland.com/fairuse.html Video artists and filmmakers—like Jean-Luc Godard, whose Histoire(s) du Cinéma consists in large part of historical film footage—have to deal with similar problems: daunting sums have to be paid for every snippet of audio-visual material.

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